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Unique performance series lets community honor 'extraordinary ordinary' Pittsburgher

A woman looks up with a navy blue background.
Laura Petrilla
RealTime Arts
Mary Carey is the subject of "The Constellationist."

The People of Pittsburgh series was born of a question Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin, of RealTime Interventions, asked themselves: Could they make a work of performance art out of a living person? And not just any show, but one whose form reflected its human subject?

The question grew more complicated when the life of the series’ latest subject itself proved to be mostly about other people.

“People of Pittsburgh: The Constellationist” honors Mary Carey, a longtime keystone of the Braddock community, with performances Wed., July 12, through Sun., July 16.

Carey, 54, is known to many for her years of work at the Braddock Carnegie Library, for organizing events at the borough’s community pizza oven, and for serving on the boards of various community groups in and around the economically distressed Mon Valley town. She’s one of the “extraordinary ordinary people” — rather than celebrities of any sort — People of Pittsburgh was launched to spotlight.

 The Constellationist play rehearsal
RealTime Arts
Lish Danielle (center) and her children Azriel and Elliot Rose rehearse for "The Constellationist."

Rice and Thelin first met her when working on their 2015 show "The Saints Tour: Greater Braddock, when local residents unfailingly identified her as someone who "knew everybody." By all accounts, the vivacious Carey lives a life of constant, informal service, connecting friends, family and neighbors to each other and to resources.

“I work for everybody, truthfully,” Carey said. “I work for the community.”

RealTime — now known as RealTime Arts — titled “The Constellationist” for Carey’s penchant for bringing people together like stars in a constellation. The cast of 10 draws heavily from her personal solar system — neighbors and other people whose lives she’s touched, including Jasmariah Johnson-Parker, her 12-year-old niece.

“She’s an extraordinary woman, and I definitely wanted to make sure people just have a little understanding about how this is how love is, this is how communities are,” said Sanford-Mark Barnes, Carey’s longtime neighbor and a performer in the show.

People of Pittsburgh shows are not traditional plays: They are devised via a collaboration between Rice, Thelin, the show’s subject and its cast, and they don’t always employ conventional narratives. The first installment, 2022’s “The Alchemist of Sharpsburg,” took the form of a choose-your-own-adventure role-playing game that explores the life of a spiritual speaker and inveterate gamer named Candra.

“Constellationist” is a variety-show-style production built around some 200 hours of audio recordings of interviews Rice conducted — mostly with Carey, but also with her friends and relatives.

“I met her when I was 13 years old,” said Carey’s friend, named Kenya, in one such interview. “When I needed a mother, when I needed a friend, when I needed a sister. She was it, she’s still it.”

The show tells Carey’s story from her childhood, in Pittsburgh’s now-demolished St. Clair Village Housing Project, to the present day. It meshes audio clips from the interviews with original songs, dances, monologues, puppetry, and more, all created by cast members. Rice shaped the material into a script, and Thelin directs.

Barnes composed and arranged some of the music for the show and plays trumpet. Erika Denae J wrote songs and sings. Woodland Hills high school student Calise Cowans-Risi tells how Carey encourages her performing ambitions – and helped her sell ads for the program book of her school musical. And Lish Danielle sings, dances, and tells a moving story of how, at a low point in her life, she encountered Carey at the library and Carey “resurrected” her simply by welcoming her in and showing her around.

“She talked to me with no agenda, no selfish game,” says Danielle. “I had to stop the tears, because some random woman saw something I hadn’t shown in a long time. She saw me.”

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Danielle’s two young children, Azriel and Elliot Rose, also perform in the show, as do professional performers Aerin Adams and Travis Matuke. Other collaborators include fiber artist Christine Bethea and puppet-maker Cheryl Capezutti.

“Constellationist” also recounts difficult times in Carey’s life, including her early struggles as a young single mother, her troubled first marriage, and the six months she spent in Allegheny County Jail many years ago after she stabbed another woman with a penknife (in self-defense, Carey said). The show also acknowledges the toll of lives lost to gun violence that has traumatized so many, Carey included.

Carey, by the way, was laid off as the library’s art-lending facilitator about a year ago. She’s since worked at Sam’s Club and Giant Eagle, she said.

Other than the audio of her interviews with Rice, she does not appear in “The Constellationist,” and in fact has been relatively scarce even at rehearsals. She said she wants to be surprised by the show, just like anyone else in the audience. But she has enjoyed hearing some of the interviews with her friends and neighbors. “I get the benefit of hearing how people feel about me,” she said.

RealTime had hoped to stage the 90-minute show in Braddock, but couldn’t find a suitable venue. The five performances will take place at Attack Theatre, in Lawrenceville, with free shuttles to and from Braddock for the Saturday and Sunday performances. Tickets for Braddock residents are pay-what-you-can.

RealTime is also currently soliciting nominations for the next People of Pittsburgh subject. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: